Toys are more than just objects to keep kids occupied. Like music, movies, and fashion, toys can steer pop culture and define entire decades. Like every generation, children of the '90s associate that time, in large part, with the toys they had. Some of the decade's most popular playthings were exclusive to the era. Others were reincarnations of things that had been around for decades before taking off in the '90s. In other cases, toys from the era made such an impact that kids are still playing with some version of them today.
In terms of technology, the 1990s was one of the most transformative decades in human history—it was the bridge between the analog and digital eras. At the beginning of the '90s, people stopped at payphones to check in with loved ones during long car rides, which they survived with cassette tapes and FM radios. By the end of the decade, those same people were sending text messages, downloading songs onto MP3 players, and using high-speed modems to perform Google searches online. Toys were not immune to the sea change. Personalized interactive toys and pocket-sized electronic games made the blocks, Slinkys, and Lincoln logs of old feel like relics.
Some of the biggest toys of the decade, however, were just modified versions of things that had been around forever. Dolls, stuffed animals, and action figures were as popular in the '90s as they'd been in the '80s, '70s, and earlier—in fact, some of the biggest Christmas crazes of the decade were as low-tech as the Cabbage Patch Kids or mood rings that came before them. Some toys, like Tamagotchi and Pogs, came and went, while others, like Nerf and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are still staples in bedrooms and backyards today.
Here's a look at the toys that defined the '90s.
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A member of the National Toy Hall of Fame since 2015, the Super Soaker made all water guns that came before it look feeble and meek—and the hydro-cannon's roots are anything but humble. A mechanical and nuclear engineer named Lonnie Johnson invented the device while working on a water-based heat pump for NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter. The first Super Soaker went on sale in 1990, turning backyards into battlefields across the world—about 200 million have been sold to date.
Originally invented in 1969 as what Parker Bros. billed as "the world's first indoor ball," Nerf was a round ball until the game-changing Nerf football arrived in 1972. In 1989, however, the company triggered an arms race among children everywhere with the introduction of Blast-a-Ball, which could shoot foam projectiles. In 1991, the world met the Nerf bow and arrow, followed by guns, missiles, and blasters, all of which caused surprisingly little damage as they whizzed across living rooms for the rest of the decade and beyond.
Games like Simon had long challenged kids to keep up with electronic commands, but Bop It upped the ante when it arrived on the scene in 1997. Unlike those that came before, the clunky, handheld contraption was a multiplayer game. Soon, children across the United States were racing to keep up with increasingly fast and anxiety-provoking directives to "twist it," "pass it," and, of course, "bop it."
Sort of a lazy person's jump rope, Skip-It—which debuted in the late '80s but rose to stardom in the '90s—went around one ankle like a rubbery ball and chain. Any kids who had one used their leg to whip the ball around and skip over it with the other foot. The ball counted the repetitions so kids could keep score.
Toy cassette player/recorder Talkboy was originally created in 1992 as a non-working prop for that year's blockbuster Christmas movie "Home Alone." Macaulay Culkin's character Kevin McCallister made Talkboy a must-have toy when he showed off the technology in the movie's sequel. The devious and unsupervised McCallister used Talkboy to slow down the playback speed and change the pitch of his voice to mimic that of an adult, which let him reserve a luxury hotel suite over the phone.
Tabletop action game Crossfire was a staple of rainy days in the '90s. Combatants blasted metal balls from opposite sides of the board to score pucks in the opponent's net. Although Milton Bradley first unveiled a version of the game in the 1970s, Crossfire gained worldwide fame during, and is still associated with, the 1990s.
In the winter of 1996, parents across America trampled each other on Black Friday and scoured stores in vain for the hottest Christmas toy of the year—and perhaps of all time. It was Tickle Me Elmo, a "Sesame Street" spinoff that launched a must-have craze not seen since the Cabbage Patch Kids a decade prior. According to the Times Union, the doll, which exchanged giggles for tickles and hugs, retailed for $30, but went for as much as $1,000 on the secondary market at the height of the craze.
Exactly 30 years after the first Easy-Bake Oven debuted in 1963, Hasbro refined the iconic American kitchen toy with the introduction of the Snack Center in 1993. Just like real kitchens of the era, the Snack Center was sleek, digital, and multi-functional.
In May 2012, a hand-drawn sketch of weapon-wielding, martial-artist turtles sold at auction for $71,700—it had been drawn in 1983 as the prototype for a new adult comic book series called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The grown-up subject matter was later softened for children and turned into a cartoon that ran from 1988 to 1996, and during that time, Playmates produced 400 related action figures, playsets, and toy vehicles. The TMNT line sold $1.1 billion in the first four years of the Turtlemania craze alone, making it the #3 best-selling toy franchise in history at the time, behind only G.I. Joe and Star Wars.
Few decades were more transformative in terms of technology than the 1990s, and toy tech was no exception. The concept of the digital pet came out of Japan when Tamagotchi hit the market in 1996. Attached to a keychain, Tamagotchi was a piece of plastic with a digital interface that let the "pet's" owner care for it and even watch it hatch—it went on to sell more than 80 million units.
Gaming companies had launched primitive and clumsy portable consoles in the past, but it was the arrival of the Nintendo Game Boy that launched mobile gaming into the modern era. Reliable, simple, and bundled with Tetris, Game Boy was launched in 1989, but it was undoubtedly one of the hottest games of the '90s.
Spawned by the blockbuster Japanese-inspired TV franchise that debuted the year before, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were the biggest Christmas toy of 1994. The action figures, which mimicked the color-coded characters from the show, are still available for purchase today on sites like Amazon and eBay.
American Girl magazine debuted in 1992 and quickly established itself as one of the biggest and most popular children's magazines, particularly among those focused on girls. The company introduced a refined and elegant 18-inch doll in 1995, which went on to become Truly Me. American Girl dolls were—and still are—a smash hit, in large part because they're fully customizable down to features like skin tone and eye color.
Referred to by collectors as the "Original Nine," the first line of Beanie Babies debuted in Chicago in 1994. The arrival of the bead-filled plush toys signaled the start of one of the greatest and longest-running collector crazes in history. The bubble finally burst for Beanie Babies when the floppy animal dolls got so popular that they were no longer exceptional—but not before making their creator, Ty Warner, a billionaire several times over.
Nintendo first revolutionized video gaming with the introduction of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985, and then again with Gameboy later on, but the company wasn't done yet. In 1996, a little more than a decade after NES, Nintendo 64 introduced a radical new innovation that would once again change how video games were played—a controller with an analog stick.
Bigger, fuzzier, and more complex than the digital pets that came before them, Furby changed the e-pet game forever. An homage to the Mogwai from "Gremlins" (intentionally or not), Furby was the first digital pet that actually seemed alive. Introduced in the fall of 1998, the big-eyed, big-eared Furby was an immediate and massive success.
It never hurts sales when a new action figure is backed by a marketing machine that includes one of the most successful Disney movies of all time. Created in tribute to real-life space hero Buzz Aldrin, Buzz Lightyear hit the shelves in 1995, the same year "Toy Story" hit the theaters.
Although Mattel created its predecessor Thingmaker in 1964, it was the children of the '90s who made Creepy Crawlers an institution. The monstrously awesome toys were discontinued in the 1980s, but were reintroduced by Toymax in 1992, giving the ghoulish game a second generation of kids to creep out.
In 1996, Robert F. Curl, Harold W. Kroto, and Richard E. Smalley won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their discovery of spherical neodymium, or rare-earth magnets. The idea of being able to make linear shapes out of spheres soon caught the eye of toymakers, and neodymium magnets were soon one of the hottest toys of the year.
Nickelodeon defined teen TV in the 1990s, and before the era of ringtones, the Nickelodeon Alarm Clock offered the choice of several impossibly piercing wake-up sounds. Decked out in Nick's trademark colors and fitted with a massive, slappable snooze button, the device was actually a functioning alarm clock, but it was also a must-have toy.
The history of the '90s pogs craze dates back to the centuries-old Japanese game of Menko, which Japanese immigrants brought with them to Hawaii in the early 20th century. The traditional game's small ceramic pieces were soon replaced with image-stamped milk bottle caps as the game evolved, became pogs, and caught on in Hawaii. In 1991, a teacher made pogs famous after teaching the game to schoolchildren on the islands. By 1993, pogs had caught fire in the mainland, where it soon seemed that every image imaginable had been shrunken down and slapped on a pog.
Lifelike dolls have come and gone through the ages, but not Baby Born. Since the no-battery-needed baby that cries hit the market in 1991, the Zapf Creation sensation has sold 22 million units. They're still on the market today, although they've received a heap of upgrades and modifications over the decades.
Tiger Electronics launched in 1978 and first introduced handheld games in the 1980s—unlike Game Boy, there were no cartridges and each unit was stocked with just one title. In the 1990s, Tiger Games offered a new series of handhelds as an alternative to Nintendo's much more expensive blockbuster mobile gaming system. Among the best was Tiger Lights Out, which hit the shelves in 1995.
Although Polly Pocket came out in 1989, the miniature dolls and their many accessories were early '90s all the way. The carriers they came in mimicked adult makeup cases, and when opened, the cases revealed an entire small-scale world that the dolls called home.
Betty Spaghetty was a huge hit almost as soon as it was launched in 1998, and its popularity endured into the early 2000s. Designed for girls 4 years old and up, kids loved Betty because, of course, of her spaghetti-like hair, but also for her interchangeable limbs.
Yes! Entertainment unveiled Yak Bak in the mid-1990s as a challenge to Tiger Entertainment's wildly popular Talkboy. The tiny handheld voice-recording toy caught on so fast that it spawned a long legacy of spinoff models before the second half of the decade rendered the crude technology obsolete.
Battling Gumby for the title stretch toy king, Stretch Armstrong traces its roots back to 1976—and those roots grew into a $50 million super franchise. So, what does this have to do with the 1990s? Stretch Armstrong fell out of favor in the '80s, but in the early '90s, he was reinvented and reintroduced with his dog, Fetch Armstrong, giving the gooey, elastic man a modern resurgence.
The concept of moon shoes dates back to the 1950s and they were first mass-produced in the '70s. In the '90s, however, Nickelodeon reinvented them with plastic fittings instead of metal ones, and with bungee-styled springs.
Just before Christmas in 1992, the Washington Post reported on a slimy, bouncy, kind of gross, yet irresistible, new craze that was becoming the holiday season's must-have toy. Slime had been synonymous with Nickelodeon since the show "You Can't Do That on Television" dumped buckets of the stuff on anyone who said "I don't know"—"Double Dare" doused contestants with slime, too. That year, kids could own some slime of their very own when Nickelodeon launched the wildly popular Gak, which spawned a line of gross and gooey spinoff slime fads that spanned the decade.
With the exception of maybe the Koosh ball, no toy ever made catching easier for people who can't catch than the Velcro toss-and-catch system. From the beach and the street to school hallways and backyards, kids—and plenty of adults, too—learned that catch is much easier with Velcro hand shields and a fuzzy ball.